The NFL’s David Kopay broke sports barriers when he came out of the closet in 1975; Martina Navratilova did the same in ’81. Elton John and George Michael made it okay for musicians to be openly gay in the late eighties and nineties, and, in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres—along with her sitcom doppelganger Ellen Morgan—told the world, and Oprah, that lovable America’s Sweetheart-types also sometimes broke the mold.

This week we’ve broken another frontier of sorts in the “coming out” narrative, with a very senior Republican stepping out of the closet and into the media limelight. Marc Ambinder had the story yesterday: “Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has told family and associates that he is gay.”

The Guardian’s Richard Adams wrote afterwards that, “In doing so Mehlman becomes the most senior Republican figure to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, at a time when the Republican party remains deeply opposed to same-sex marriage and the abolition of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars homosexuals from serving in the US military.” Ambinder says that, as of yesterday, “Mehlman is the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.”

I’ve always been a little disconcerted by reporting on the powerful and famous “coming out,” usually the fodder of the gossip rags and talk shows. The less the hoopla surrounding such stories, the farther along I think we’ve come. Curiosity drives coverage so much more than any level of import. It shouldn’t matter; it’s a private issue, and all that usual stuff. True, such stories give readers a fuller understanding of the kind of struggles gay people face while deciding whether to take the scary step of letting people know who they truly are. But, the idealist in me still longs for a day when those struggles are fewer, and our need-to-know, or care, or pry, less intense.

Mehlman’s is a different case, a private story inextricably tangled up in some very public national debates he often helped steer. His decision to talk to Ambinder is an acknowledgement of this, as is his new involvement in pro-gay marriage groups. So too is his confession that “he ‘really wished’ he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, ‘so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]’ and ‘reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans…’

There has been some solid reporting today addressing the implications of Mehlman’s personal life on his past, and the future of his party. Ambinder had first dibs, and challenged Mehlman on the conflict between his private self and his public positions.

Mehlman’s leadership positions in the GOP came at a time when the party was stepping up its anti-gay activities — such as the distribution in West Virginia in 2006 of literature linking homosexuality to atheism, or the less-than-subtle, coded language in the party’s platform (“Attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country…”). Mehlman said at the time that he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus. He was aware that Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief strategic adviser, had been working with Republicans to make sure that anti-gay initiatives and referenda would appear on November ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans.

Mehlman acknowledges that if he had publicly declared his sexuality sooner, he might have played a role in keeping the party from pushing an anti-gay agenda.

Slate’s William Saletan focuses on the impact Mehlman’s coming out could have on the current debate.

Many influential Republicans have worked with him and respect him. He makes it harder for them to think of homosexuality as a behavior. They now know somebody who is gay. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld might have put it, they now know that they know somebody who is gay.

… if you look at polls over the last 30 or 40 years, two factors have been driving public opinion in the direction of gay rights. One is whether you know someone who’s openly gay. More and more people do, and those who do are more tolerant of homosexuality. The other factor is whether you think it’s involuntary. This belief, too, has increased over time, and tolerance has increased with it. It’s pretty hard to imagine that the guy who ran the GOP during its recent campaigns against gay marriage would come out as homosexual unless he felt he had no choice. This is simply who he is.

Some of the most thorough reporting comes from The Advocate’s website, where writers Kerry Eleveld and Andrew Harmon survey Mehlman’s past before examining his potential as a game-changing political force in the gay marriage debate.

“I have spent no time thinking about where Ken was four-to-five-to-six years ago. I’m just thankful that he’s with us today,” said Chad Griffin, co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the organization that’s solely funding the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 in federal court brought by former Bush solicitor general Ted Oslon and progressive legal eagle David Boies.

“He is one of the most brilliant political strategists from the Republican side of the aisle,” said Griffin, “and he is also a master fundraiser and brings contacts and relationships to bear that are comparable to almost no one.”

…As Steve Elmendorf, a Washington Democratic political operative, observed, “Ted Olson brought incredible credibility to the legal case, Ken can bring incredible credibility to our political case and send the message that being on the right side of this issue is not going to cost you politically.”

Not all in the LGBT community are welcoming Mehlman and his strategist credentials into the fold. His mea culpa with Ambinder has not been enough for fiery blogger Joe My God, for example, who pointed to Mehlman’s “crimes against his own people” and called the former RNC chair a “Repulsive Anti-Gay Quisling Homophobic Scumbag.” Mike Rogers at BlogActive writes:

Ken Mehlman is horridly homophobic and no matter how orchestrated his coming out is, our community should hold him accountable for his past.

And:

I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for being the architect of the 2004 Bush reelection campaign. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for his role in developing strategy that resulted in George W. Bush threatening to veto ENDA or any bill containing hate crimes laws. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for the pressing of two Federal Marriage Amendments as political tools. I want to hear from Ken that he is sorry for developing the 72-hour strategy, using homophobic churches to become political arms of the GOP before Election Day.

The language is intemperate and charged, and the laying of blame too singly focused. But the bloggers are hitting a legitimate point. Here is a man who’s operated at the center of a machine that has taken stands against the person he now realizes he is, and everyone else like him. And while he claims to have struggled with his sexuality for a long time—he tells Ambinder, for forty-three years—and wishes he had have realized sooner so that he might have worked against the Federal Marriage Amendment while in power, Mehlman’s sexuality is said by some to be one of the “worst kept secrets in Washington.” It’s surfaced nationally before, as well. Bill Maher outed him on Larry King in 2006 and Mehlman was fingered in the partisan documentary, “Outrage,” which argued closeted lawmakers worked against gay rights to conceal their own sexuality.

If Mehlman came to terms with his sexuality sooner than his discussions with Ambinder or Politico’s Mike Allen suggest, then he did have the opportunity to reach out to the gay community while in power. And his timing now—unshackled by a (slightly) more tolerant GOP, spurred by the Prop 8 debate and his new work for gay rights—is as political as was his decision to stay mum while at the top of the GOP. His apology is dishonest.

Of course, that’s a lot of ifs. And one can’t blame some mainstream outlets for playing up the impact of a prominent gay GOP-er on the gay marriage debate. It’s a very interesting shift. And Mehlman has as much right to privacy to as Clay Aitken or anyone else who chooses their own time to come out. But we have a right to ask questions that arise in his story when he chooses to make it public. A responsibility to do so in this case, which is about the future of more than pop music or tennis.

“Exactly when did you realize this about yourself?” is a legitimate question here. The whole premise of Mehlman’s public regret hinges on it. As does the LGBT community’s new embrace of him. “Fairly recently” might not cut it as an answer. He should have been pushed. Before Mehlman is emblemized as an agent of tolerance today, we should hold him fully accountable for yesterday.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.